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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Swiss Peace Foundation, Geneva, 30 October 1992

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Swiss Peace Foundation, Geneva, 30 October 1992

30 October 1992

It is a great pleasure and privilege for me to address the Swiss Peace Foundation. The refugee issue warrants the attention of this distinguished gathering not only because of its humanitarian significance, but also because of its relationship to peace and stability. The exodus of 1.7 million Kurds from northern Iraq last year showed the vulnerability of global security in the face of large scale movements. The displacement of almost 3 million persons in ex-Yugoslavia has only served to underscore the impact of refugees on international security.

I have been invited to speak on "environmental refugees", a term which, despite its popularity, continues to be controversial, not least because of its frequent, indiscriminate use to denote all those who move as a result of environmental degradation or natural disaster. Thus, the relationship between this category of persons and traditional concepts of refugee protection and assistance have remained largely ignored and unexplored. I therefore welcome the initiative of the Swiss Peace Foundation to examine the subject. I am sure that your efforts will help to elucidate a very complex issue.

I hope I can add a new dimension to your discussion by concentrating, firstly, on the link between refugees and the environment. I see this link in three major areas of causes of refugee flows, their consequences on host countries and in the search for solutions. Secondly, I would like to share with you my thoughts on a strategy which takes account of these links and seeks to address the refugee problem in a comprehensive manner.

There are 18 million refugees in the world today and another 20 million persons displaced inside their own countries in a refugee-like situation. As the international community continues to grope for a new equilibrium, a staggering three million people have been forced to flee abroad in search of safety this year alone. An unknown number have also been compelled to leave their homes for similar reasons and have sought sanctuary within the border of their own countries. In the same time period, another million and a half have returned home voluntarily as political settlements are reached in a new international climate of co-operation.

This mixed landscape of greater displacement, on the one hand, and hope for solutions, on the other, has given new immediacy and impetus to the search for innovative approaches to the refugee problem. I am convinced, however, that the first essential step in this direction must be a better understanding of who is a refugee and why he or she is compelled to move.

Within international law, refugees are defined as individuals who flee their country because of fear of ethnic, religious or political persecution, or to escape conflict, and cannot rely on the protection of their own government. The loss of national protection is a key element of the refugee definition, and of direct consequence for the work of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. It is the mandate of my Office to provide international protection and assistance to refugees and to find solutions to their problems.

Using the term "environmental refugee" to refer to all people forced to leave their homes because of environmental change loses the distinctive need of refugees for protection. It blurs the respective responsibilities of national governments towards their citizens and of the international community towards those who are without protection. It also impedes a meaningful consideration of solutions and action on behalf of the different groups. Therefore, UNHCR believes the term "environmental refugee" is a misnomer.

Before I am disqualified as a speaker on this subject, let me hasten to add that, while a large proportion of victims of environmental degradation would thus fall outside the refugee definition, clear linkages do exist between the environment and refugee flows.

Although the notion of "environmental refugees" may not have a place in the conceptual framework of refugees, environmental decline is an important factor in a very complex combination of causes which compel refugees to move. The refugees of today are not only victims of persecution, but also, and overwhelmingly so, victims of social dislocation and conflict of the kind we are witnessing in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Somalia. Environmental damage is an inevitable consequence of the fighting, but often it is also directly inflicted as a weapon to subdue the population or prevent their return to certain areas. Indeed, in the case of ex-Yugoslavia, the very objective of the conflict is to destroy homes and habitats so that people are unable to return.

At the same time, environmental decline, coupled with demographic pressure and poverty, can also exacerbate competition for scarce resources and contribute to tensions. Frustration, despair and hostility can easily explode into violence in countries comprised of a patchwork of different ethnic, linguistic, religious or ideological groups.

Africa which holds about ten per cent of the world's population has twenty five percent of its refugees. It is no coincidence that those parts of the continent which are most affected by the environmental crisis, are also the main theatre of conflicts, recurrent famine and consequent refugee movements. In Somalia, internal chaos, bloodshed and famine have left my Office struggling to provide assistance to over a million Somali refugees who have sought refuge in Kenya, Ethiopia, Yemen and Djibouti. Elsewhere on the continent, in Mozambique, drought has served to intensify the effects of conflict and force people to seek refuge in neighbouring countries. Or to become displaced within their own borders.

It is important to note that the conflict and drought in Mozambique have generated more internally displaced persons than refugees. There is rightly a growing international concern about the plight of the internally displaced. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has a mandate only for those who have crossed borders. However, the proliferation of internal conflict, and the ensuing break-up of States or breakdown of meaningful government, have led to increasing numbers of internally displaced in a refugee-like situation. Despite the limitations of UNHCR's mandate, we are becoming involved more and more with the internally displaced, both to address their humanitarian needs and to avert cross border movements.

In the former Yugoslavia, we are the lead U.N. agency for all those affected by the conflict. In the Horn of Africa, we have been confronted with mixed populations of returning refugees, internally displaced, and demobilised soldiers, where a distinction between the groups, in terms of their needs, is both inhumane and impractical. UNHCR has therefore adopted what we call a cross-mandate approach in parts of the Horn of Africa to address the basic emergency needs of the entire community, and thereby stabilise the population.

In each of these situations of internal displacement, environmental decline is an important element, as is the need for protection. Yet protecting nationals in their own country under volatile conditions confronts us with many dilemmas - legal, moral and practical. Not least is the issue of national sovereignty at a time when the concept of the nation State appears to be under pressure. Much greater attention needs to be focused not only on the institutional and legal lacuna for protecting the internally displaced but also on the relationship between such internal displacement, other types of internal displacement and environmental factors. Clearer distinction between the groups and their needs would help to provide better guidance for national responsibilities and international action.

In relation to the causes of population movements, there is another factor that deserves note. People rarely move for one reason alone. However, mixed motives for departure, which combine economic and environmental reasons with political ones create a problem for the refugee system. This is particularly so when people move from the poorer parts of the world to the industrialised countries. Take the example of Haiti, where a combination of political repression, economic decline and environmental degradation has pushed over one million people - more than one-sixth of the population - out of the country. The outflow of the Haitian boat people, following the coup d'état last year, confronted the United States with a major dilemma of how to draw the line between refugees and migrants without jeopardising the institution of asylum.

The upheaval and violent dismemberment of the former Yugoslavia is yet another example of the inadequacy of any analysis that reduces the causes of population movements only to simple economic or environmental factors. The resurgence of nationalism in parts of the former Soviet Union is leading to new conflicts and dangerous refugee flows. While environmental decline has probably played little role in generating conflicts in eastern Europe, civil war is giving rise to fears of environmental damage on an apocalyptic scale if chemical or nuclear plants are destroyed in the process. The consequences for human habitat and population movements could have repercussions far beyond that region.

Let me now move to the second linkage between refugees and the environment. Environmental degradation does not only contribute to cause refugee flows; it is often also a consequence of refugee movements, particularly when large concentrations of refugees are forced to seek asylum in ecologically fragile areas. Malawi is one example of a small, poor and over-populated country where the numbers of refugees exceed that of locals in some districts, and which is now facing one of the worst droughts in its history. Bangladesh is another country where over 265,000 refugees from Myanmar have sought asylum in a region itself prone to natural disasters.

Furthermore, the unpredictable nature of refugee emergencies, the urgent need to respond, the limited availability of funds, and political and practical realities often limit the possibilities for reducing environmental damage when a refugee influx suddenly occurs. For example, we may all be aware of the effect of the disproportionately high population density in refugee settlements but the options for other camp sites are usually limited. Whenever food is provided, fuel to cook it should be part of the assistance, but lack of adequate funding means that energy needs tend to go unaddressed.

The primary and most obvious consequence of the presence of refugees in a host country is deforestation. Indeed, in many parts of the world you can detect the presence of refugee camps by the denudation of vegetation for miles around. By collecting firewood, cutting down trees to build houses or clearing land to plant crops, refugees can inflict considerable damage to the environment of host countries. When refugees bring their animals with them, as is the case often in Africa, they add another burden to the carrying capacity of land, and aggravate the problem of over-grazing. The depletion and pollution of water resources can further complicate the problem.

For poor developing countries, the environmental cost of hosting large numbers of refugees can create a real dilemma between humanitarianism and economic development. Thus, greater awareness of environmental issues has, not surprisingly, affected the inclination of countries to grant asylum. Let me hasten to add, however, that ecological considerations, though important, are only one of a multitude of factors underlying the growing reluctance of countries to admit refugees, ironically more so in the affluent West than in the indigent South. Nevertheless, whether in the context of ongoing strife in Somalia, insecurity and famine in Mozambique, ethnic tensions in Myanmar or violent conflict in former Yugoslavia, questions are increasingly being asked as to the extent of the burden that countries of asylum can reasonably be expected to sustain.

This brings me to the issue of durable solutions to refugee problems, which is the third area affected by environmental considerations.

It is now widely accepted that the voluntary return of refugees, in safety and dignity to their homes, is not only the most feasible solution, it is also the most preferable one. Politically, the time for voluntary repatriation has never been better. The new spirit of multilateral cooperation has opened up prospects for resolution of many refugee-producing conflicts. Political settlements are leading to humanitarian solutions for the return of refugees in places as far apart as El Salvador, Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia and Mozambique.

However, despite the positive political climate, the conditions for return are far from ideal. There is thus a real risk that the potential for solution can easily become the seed for disaster in the face of premature return of refugees to insecure and unsatisfactory conditions. Many of the areas to which refugees are returning are still prone to insecurity and extreme volatility. Almost all of them are heavily mined, and have been virtually devastated by decades of war. The impact on the environment has been horrendous, particularly in arid and semi-arid areas. If we take the Horn of Africa as just one example - and let me emphasise there are many more - how can we expect those who return to be reabsorbed on land which has little or no capacity left to even sustain those who are still there? Are we not simply sowing the ground for new and more tragic emergencies? And to what effect on the longer term national and regional peace and stability?

The relationship between refugees and the environment is a complex one, inter-woven and influenced by numerous other factors - political, ethnic, social and economic. An effective response must be a comprehensive one which helps to avert mass movements, as well as adequately respond to, and resolve them when they do occur. An approach based on asylum alone will not be able to sustain humanitarianism in the face of massive population movements. It must be accompanied by strong measures in the countries from which refugees originate to prevent and resolve refugee flows. That is the basis of the three-point strategy which UNHCR is pursuing, each stage of which recognises an environmental dimension. The strategy is one of prevention, preparedness and solutions.

Let me clarify that by prevention I do not mean building barriers to stop people moving but rather, removing or reducing the factors which force displacement. Such a preventive strategy can greatly benefit from a better understanding of the reasons why people move and of the link between poverty, environmental decline and displacement. Indeed, it is very important that the refugee issue should be placed on the environmental and development agenda, because it is only by addressing the root causes of population movements that we can hope to reduce refugee problems, stabilise turbulent societies and enhance global security.

Prevention also means working closely with other actors on the international scene to strengthen human rights, peace-keeping, peace-making and peace-building. It means protecting and assisting the internally displaced, as we are doing in the former Yugoslavia, and through such humanitarian action, creating the time and space for an eventual political settlement.

Prevention is a promising strategy but not a panacea. As Yugoslavia continues to demonstrate, prevention can supplement but not substitute asylum. Therefore the second prong of my strategy is based on preparedness - preparedness to protect and assist refugees when emergencies occur. However, traditional approaches to countries of asylum must be tempered by imaginative and flexible measures to meet their concerns, including on environmental issues. UNHCR is working towards a more ecological approach in the planning and implementation of its programmes, so that environmental damage caused by refugee flows can be avoided or pre-empted. Realising that inevitably some damage will still occur, we are furthermore cooperating with other agencies and institutions in an effort to rehabilitate the environment in refugee-hosting areas.

The third prong of my strategy is the pursuit of solutions to refugee problems. As I mentioned earlier, voluntary repatriation to war ravaged countries, such as Afghanistan, Angola and Cambodia, demonstrates in most graphic form the link between sustainable development and durable solution to refugee problems. If the vicious cycle of exile, return, internal displacement and exile is to be broken in many parts of the world, there must be a comprehensive and concerted effort to create proper conditions of return, economically and socially as well as politically. This requires greater priority to be given to incorporating returning refugees and their communities into national reconstruction and development efforts.

This process of incorporation is crucial in cementing returns - but unfortunately reveals a gap between the short-term relief which UNHCR provides to returning refugees, and the longer-term efforts of development agencies. Unless relief and development are treated effectively as a continuum and consolidated into an overall framework, the gap could become an abyss of despair and more displacement. In order to overcome this problem, UNHCR embarked on a novel experiment in Nicaragua - now duplicated in Cambodia - of small quick-impact projects to benefit returning refugees and their communities. Providing a rice-thresher, repairing a bridge which gives access to markets, drilling a tube well for clean water, these are small efforts but of enormous value in bridging the gap between reintegration and development.

In conclusion, let me reiterate that whether in terms of prevention, protection or solutions, it is clear that environmental issues will a play a greater role as our living patterns threaten natural systems, conflicts proliferate and we are confronted with ever larger humanitarian emergencies. It is equally clear that the refugee problem cannot be treated in isolation from the major political, economic and social challenges facing the international community. A coherent and comprehensive strategy of political action and sustainable development is needed, not only to reaffirm our humanitarian commitment to the distressed and the displaced, but also as a major step towards a safer and more stable world. The risks are evident, but the opportunities are also abundant. Let us not hesitate to take up this challenge. It concerns our common survival, and that of generations to come.